ATLANTA -- The week leading up to the Super Bowl is often a time when a lot of ink, a lot of air and a lot of Internet space is spent on the topic of legacy.
Rob Gronkowski’s legacy is among the most fascinating of a historically fascinating group, and it’s worth considering given that the potential for retirement — and Super Bowl LIII being his final game — looms.
He is, without a doubt, the greatest tight end of his era. The story of the NFL can hardly be told without referencing his dominance over the better part of the past decade.
- MORE SUPER BOWL - Coaches on how to stop Patriots offense
- Coaches on how to thwart the Patriots defense
Still, did he change the game? Whenever he does retire, will we be able to look at the state of his position and say that it was drastically altered because of him?
The fact that it’s hard to say may speak to just how unique Gronkowski is. Could he truly change the game if his skill set is nearly impossible to replicate?
Patriots right end Stephen Anderson, 26, has watched Gronkowski for years and likes to define himself as a hybrid player at his position. Like Gronkowski, he feels as though he can play in the run and pass games. It’s the level to which Gronkowski does both, though, that makes him unique.
“You have tight ends these days that are mainly receivers. You have tight ends that are mainly blockers,” Anderson said. “But when he came into the league, even though it was trending towards more receivers, like Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz — he is the last of the old-school tight ends that can do both.
“He's one that not only does both but does it at top-of-the-league levels. Running routes. Catching. Blocking. There's not too many tight ends in the game that have that skill set that are the best in the league as a tight end. Just watching that, watching that at this point in his career is really amazing. The catches he makes, the blocks he makes, his football IQ and savvy. It’s really fun watching and learning from him.”
And Anderson has caught Gronkowski on a relatively down year. He’s dealt with back and ankle issues off and on throughout the season and didn’t approach the statistical heights he did when he was a First Team All-Pro in 2017 for the fourth time.
Yet he’s been part of what has driven the Patriots offensively even as his receiving prowess has been diminished in spurts. As the Patriots have morphed into more of a run-heavy offense, Gronkowski has arguably been their best blocker on a team that features powerful run-game players in Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown.
“I think that's what makes him him,” swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle said. “That's what makes him Gronk. Hell of a player. He can put his hand in the dirt and mix it up with guys. Obviously, he catches a lot of passes and makes some plays like that too. There's not a whole bunch of guys in this league that can do that. That just shows you how much work he puts in and how good he's been throughout his career.
“I think of him as a glorified O-lineman. Obviously, he's a little more athletic than us, but he'll definitely mix it up. We definitely enjoy and appreciate guys laying it on the line just like we do every play.”
“He’s such a dynamic all-around tight end,” James Develin said. “He can block. He can run routes. He's good with the ball in his hands. Will there be another one? I don't know.“
There are tight ends in the league with Gronkowski’s frame. There are tight ends in the league who are faster. There are tight ends in the league with tremendous hands. But Gronkowski, even now in his ninth season, still possesses a rare blend of those qualities.
Teammates agreed he’s rare enough that even if there will someday be another player with a similar skill set, it’s not happening any time soon.
“I mean, I feel like you watch high school sports, these kids are way better athletes than guys like me born in the late-80s,” Devin McCourty said. “I wouldn't be surprised just seeing how athletic guys are and what they're able to do. Look at big Trent [Brown] on our team. He showed us a video back during the season of him doing dunks and stuff...I wouldn't be surprised [to see another Gronk type]. But it might take a while. He's a pretty good player.”
“I hope not, [but] there probably will be,” Kyle Van Noy said. “I think more players are in college starting to be more like him. He's kind of changed the game. He's one of a kind though. I don’t think you'll see someone as energetic and humorous as that guy. He can light up a room.”
“I can't predict the future,” Develin said. “The game is kind of always evolving and taking different paths. But just as a person alone, I don't know if you're ever going to find another Gronk. He's just such a fun guy to be around, a fun guy to work with. I'm really happy I've been able to work with him the past seven years.”
Though it’s unclear Gronkowski himself has been a catalyst for the changing nature of the position. Again, his individual talents make that hard to gauge. But there’s no denying the position has changed. He’s seen it. He’s been a part of that change, and he’s executed the varied receiving responsibilities that now accompany the modern tight end role as well as anyone.
“Since I was a rookie til now, the tight end position has evolved a little bit,” he said this week. “In that case, I mean players splitting out wide, tight ends splitting out in the slot, tight ends going one-on-one outside. Back in the heyday you really didn't see that that much. They were always lined up in the backfield or on the wing. To see tight ends now be able to line up all over the field, it's definitely changed the game.”
Gronkowski looked as healthy as he’s looked since Week 1 back in the AFC title game and his myriad abilities could very well be on display once again against the Rams. If the Patriots want to run out of heavy packages, he can move bodies at the point of attack. If they want to run him down the seam to stress Wade Phillips’ single-high safety coverages, he’ll garner significant attention. If LA plays man-to-man, the Patriots could use Gronkowski’s size outside the numbers to win jump balls against linebackers or safeties.
“To me, he has made me the player I am,” Patrick Chung said. “I get to go against him every day for the last eight, nine years. So, he’s definitely made me better, period. So, I actually need to thank him. Personally, that’s how I feel about him. And we’ve been grinding it out. There are days we don’t want to grind it out, and we’re going to grind it out. So, much love to him. Thank you.”
“I mean, the guy’s so hard to cover,” McCourty said. “I think a lot of people think of tight ends – so tough in the red area, making plays – but you watch him down the field, crossing routes, catching the ball for five yards, breaking two tackles.
“I think just the way you look at his off-the-field of grinding through injuries, that’s how he plays. I think it showed up [in Kansas City] when we needed him the most, making big catches, making big plays. I think for me, it’s just cool – every time I’m asked about him, we came in the same year and to watch both of us kind of grow in this organization and become leaders, both be captains at times. You get to kind of be right next to a guy and see him grow, and obviously for me to watch what he’s been able to, best tight end in football for years. That’s not easy to do.”
It’s why there may not be another like him.
- MORE RAMS - L.A. could be underestimating Super Bowl noise
“I don't know,” Rex Burkhead said. “It's gonna be tough. I've never seen anyone as big as he is run as well as he can and with the hands he has. You've seen him make some unbelievable one-handed catches, catches it right off the turf as well. And he's 6-foot-8. It's impressive. Unbelievable player. the best tight end I've ever seen.”
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.